The tale of our globetrotting PM: Are we getting our money’s worth?
Since coming into power in 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has spent 185 days of his 940 days in office outside of the country. In other words, between June 2013 and February 2016, the PM has made 65 trips abroad. This is in laughably stark contrast to the number of times PM Sharif has visited the country’s sovereign legislative body, the National Assembly: a miserly 35 times.
While a cash-strapped Pakistan continues on the path of bailouts and loans from international lenders, the PM’s foreign gallivanting has cost the national exchequer upwards of an eye-popping 63.82 crore rupees.
One could argue that perhaps the PM’s foreign trips are a useful strategy – a means of rejigging the disastrous global image of Pakistan.
After all, we currently hold the dubious rank of number eight most dangerous country in the world and our favourite frenemy America has lovingly dubbed us an ‘international migraine’. A little bit of high-level schmoozing might then be just the antidote the country needs. Perhaps, our globetrotting PM is Pakistan’s Panadol?
According to reports, Mr Sharif has carried out official visits to Saudi Arabia five times, followed by the US and China, which he visited four times. Sharif has spent most number of days in the US while Turkey has been a favoured destination, which he likes to visit at least once a year. And, it is a well-known fact that the UK is a most favoured destination of our PM who has made a whopping 17 trips to the British Isles since taking to office.
PM Sharif isn’t the only world leader whose travel itinerary has caused its country (wo)men to have a conniption.
President Barack Obama is routinely under scrutiny for most time spent traveling internationally more than any other American president in history. The cost alone of operating his aircraft, the Air Force One, has been known to reach an exorbitant $6,620,352 – an extraordinary tab picked up by American taxpayers.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also frequently finds himself in the line-of-fire for spending exorbitant amounts of taxpayer money on his foreign trips.
Since coming to power in May 2014, PM Modi has visited over 33 countries. His continued absence and inordinate expenses led to the Indian External Affairs Ministry suggesting the PM keep foreign engagements to a minimum in 2016 (only when it is absolutely necessary).
If every major world leader is world trotting on their countrymen’s dime then shouldn’t Pakistani taxpayers just deal with the colossal cost inevitably resulting from high-level foreign trips?
The question really boils down to whether the people of Pakistan are getting what they are paying for and what our PM has accomplished – or hopes to accomplish – during time spent abroad.
Before attempting to dissect the PM’s foreign jaunts a general word on world leaders’ foreign travel: typically, foreign travel is comprised of both official/political and unofficial activities. For the official/political components, the Pakistani exchequer would likely pay all costs including per diem (food and hotel), car rentals and other incidentals. Data is sparse and a lot less clear for who covers the bill stemming from unofficial activities.
But, one thing is for certain: Unlike the international travels of we regular folk, which are documented through filtered Instagram posts and the occasional Facebook check-in, the travels of a world leader have both a micro and macroscopic impact that the world can see unfolding on a global stage.
And a brief review of Sharif’s high-profile visits with high-profile world leaders seems to indicate the PM has an ambitious strategy. Whether he’s carrying out this strategy in a viable manner is a question on its own.
Take Pakistan’s current relationship with the US – the most visited country by the PM. The convoluted relationship, which is prone to going from good to great to terrible was, just days ago, been described by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as steady and positive.
According to reports, Pakistan is currently happily playing ball with the US by pursuing the policy of non-interference and ‘no favourites’ in Afghanistan.
Then there is the infamous Saudi-Sharif relationship. Saudi Arabia has always been the big brother willing to take in and atone the sins of the Sharif family.
In fact, of the many foreign trips on record, there are several trips to Saudi Arabia that remain off record because of their personal nature (Ramazan, Umrah, etcetera). It is unclear who foots the bills for these personal journeys.
As far as the official Saudi Arabia trips go, it is not clear what the PM intends to accomplish.
When recently asked what role Pakistan would play in the 34-member alliance of Islamic countries headed by Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism in the region, officials defused the question with a passive “we are yet to (determine) what role Pakistan will be playing in this alliance” while maintaining that Pakistan had not yet formally joined any such alliance.
Then there is the infamous effort at India-Pakistan diplomacy.
Just this past December 2015 PM Modi surprised PM Sharif in Lahore for his birthday. The duo met with a big hug at the airport but just months before this magnanimous meeting India had responded to Sharif’s peace overtures with a surge in cross-border firing.
Given the mixed messages the two nations frequently send each other; it’s hard to say which way the pendulum is going to swing in the forever unfolding Leo-Tolstoy-esque saga that is the Indo-Pak story.
PM Sharif took to leading the country, for a third time, with an ambitious international and domestic agenda.
As it stands right now, this agenda is all over the place – much like Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy.
So, while Sharif continues to collect air miles at 60,000 feet, his ambitious global agenda continues to remain seriously off-track.
Of course, no one is suggesting that Sharif’s frequent international trips are completely purposeless, hopeless pleasure-seeking visits to his favourite vacation locales.
But a little more transparency from the PM’s office would be a nice reassurance for taxpayers before we are asked to yet again dig deeper into our empty pockets so as to keep our PM travelling in style with his in-flight Perrier water and Badami milk served in a Mughal-style silver glass.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.